Ganymedes and Kings: Staging Male Homosexual Desire in The Winter's Tale
Nora Johnson, Swarthmore College
When historians discuss the relation between homosexual practice and homosexual identity in England before the eighteenth century, they often note that male same-sex behaviors coincided with neither a set of psychosocial characteristics nor a clear sexual preference. Alan Bray, for instance, describes satirical portrayals of the courtier who engaged in sodomy, arguing that these portrayals were striking from a twentieth-century perspective because of their failure to represent a specifically homosexual identity: "on this point [the satirists] are remarkably consistent: the sodomite is a young man-about-town, with his mistress on one arm and his 'catamite' on the other."1 Following, as he says, "broadly" in the traditions of Mary Mcintosh, Jeffrey Weeks, and Michael Foucault, Bray argues that representations of sodomy before the late-seventeenth century reveal the historical contingency of the modern homosexual. He cites Donne's first Satire, for example, which accuses one man-about-town of enjoying the "nakedness and bareness" of a "plump muddy whore or prostitute boy," and he notes that Johnson's Sir Voluptuous Beast makes his wife listen to tales about his sexual exploits, recounting to her "the motions of each petticoat / And how his Ganymede moved and how his goat."2
The evidence that Bray culls from sources other than satire is equally telling and equally resistant to identifying an exclusively homosexual "type." He describes the reputation of Sir Anthony Ashley, one of James I's courtiers known for his love of boys, who was also known to be a married man and the father of a daughter. He similarly reports Lucy Hutchinson's description of court life under James:
The face of the Court was much changed in the change of the king, for King Charles was temperate, chaste, and serious; so that the fools and bawds, mimics and catamites of the former court grew out of fashion and the nobility and courtiers, who did not quite abandon their debaucheries, yet so reverenced the king as to retire into corners to practice them.3
What emerges from Bray's study is more than simply the absence of what twentieth-century historians would call "homosexuality." These accounts suggest that homosexual practice was part of an aristocratic sexual esthetic, a "fashion," in which the courtier sampled at will from an array of erotic practices, none of which could impose itself upon him as a rigid identity. Even Ashley's apparent preference for boys seems to have been compatible with his role as a husband and father. To reiterate the point that has become associated especially with the work of Foucault, sodomy in early modern England is an act, not an identity.
Certainly homosexual desire as imagined by James himself seems to have involved no sense of sexual nature. On the contrary, his letters to his favorite George Villiers enact almost an escape from identity, a sense that one of the pleasures of illicit sexuality was its license to undo the categories of self-definition. James addresses one such letter to "My only sweet and dear child," for instance, and he prays
That we may make at this Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept hereafter; for, God so love me, as I desire only to live in this world for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you than live a sorrowful widow's life without you. And so god bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.4
James thinks of this relationship as if it were a marriage in which both partners are wives at the same time that James is father and husband and Villiers is child and wife. Far from being identified by his desire for another man, James imagines homoeroticism as an undoing of identity itself. In fact, James's words to Villiers resonate strongly with Bray's contention, developed further by Jonathan Goldberg, that sodomy in this period belongs not so much to a system of sexual taxonomy as to a system of unintelligibility, a social order in which sexual contact between men signifies only when it can be associated with chaos, anarchy, heresy, or sorcery.5 In this reading, the scandal James risks is not a revelation of personal identity so much as an unleashing of ideological forces that could threaten to undo his own kingship.
Neither James nor the early modern courtier who employs a ganymede, then, is a homosexual in any modern sense of the word. But what are we to assume about the ganymede or catamite himself? The terms in which we are accustomed to explaining the invention of sexual identity—the molly house subcultures in Bray's account, the discursive subject in Foucault's analysis—are inadequate to explain the status of the passive "boy" whose presence gurantees homoerotic content in the accounts of debauchery mentioned above. The ganymede is emphatically not the homosexual subject Foucault teaches us to associate with modernity; among other disqualifying factors, his participation in the homoerotic is taken to be a function of his youth, rather than some expression of essence or nature. In some accounts the ganymede himself desires a woman, while an adult male desires him. But the early modern representations I will examine below suggest that the ganymede's role as an object of homosexual desire extends beyond mere passivity in important ways, that he is imagined as intrinsically fit to be such an object, even, at times, in spite of his own professed desires. Moreover, although we know little or nothing about the relation between actual boys and literary representations of ganymedes, the employment of boys as erotic objects in early modern theater makes the ganymede an integral part of a theater company's reputation. In this light, the eroticized boy is more than a literary strategy for representing aristocratic sexual license. Because The Winter's Tale is centrally concerned, in my reading, with legitimating theatrical practice, its meditations on boyhood similarly become more than nostalgia for the lost past of the two kings whose relationship dominates the play. Representing boyhood becomes instead a way of negotiating the homoerotic, both for Leontes and Polixenes and for the institution of theater itself. In both cases, the reputation for sodomy means more than "acts."
I will argue, then, that even in the absence of a totalizing rhetoric of homosexual identity, the ganymede's participation in the homoerotic identifies him powerfully, so much so that his presence onstage works to stigmatize the theatrical profession. Such an argument is offered not to counter the notion that homosexuality is a historically contingent construct; especially as formulated by Foucault, that insight has powerfully altered perceptions both of sexuality and of early modern Europe. Instead, I want to add this study to the growing body of work that moves beyond the potential reductiveness of a Foucaultian paradigm.6 We can surely emphasize the radical newness of hpmosexuality "as we know it" without ignoring the multiple and complex ways that sodomy could interact With notions of self before the modern era. As Gregory Bredbeck argues,
if [essentialist critics begin] with the assumption that we can trace an atemporal conception of homosexuality throughout history, the other alternative has been to say that because we cannot trace this particular concept through history, nothing can be traced. In each instance "the homosexual" is essentialized as the absolute standard of adjudication. "It" is what we must find if we are to find anything at all.7
This essay explores what might be traced, and examines the interactions between theatrical self-consciousness and illicit desire in The Winter's Tale,